Most Taranakians will recognise Mark Crysell as Sunday’s senior reporter, but a few years ago he inadvertently revealed to the nation that his backside is just as recognisable.
Even though he has risen to the top of investigative journalism in New Zealand, it is his bottom that has gone down in history at his alma mater, Spotswood College.
Mark recalls being guest speaker for senior prize-giving and revealing how one of his favourite lunchtime activities while at the school was water-bombing unsuspecting students from the top of the second storey classroom blocks.
One day he and his three mates bombed some teachers.
“They were looking round for us and we all did brown-eyes out the window,” he recalls. One of the teachers gazing up at the four rears uttered the line ‘That one there, three from the left, that’s Mark Crysell!’
The students at the prize-giving all laughed but what Mark didn’t realise was that there was a reporter from The Daily News there that day. The next morning the headline in the paper was ‘You might know his face, but his teachers knew his bum’ – “which I think is absolute genius,” says Mark. “I still have the clipping … it was a classic.”
After completing high school he went to Massey University for a year but confesses to being “a terrible student”.
“I missed New Plymouth, I missed my mates and I missed surfing.”
He was a fencing contractor for a while, worked on Motunui, then took all the money he made from that and went overseas. Next was seismic surveying, drilling for gold and diamonds in Western Australia, a courier in London … “you know, you make up a CV and get a job,” he says.
He lived in a range of countries and during that time one of the things he really enjoyed, particularly when travelling in Africa, was listening to the BBC World Service.
“Seeing what really amazing radio can do, the places it can take you in your head. I really connected with that, and when I came home to New Zealand, I took a punt and went down to the Christchurch Broadcasting School and did a six-month diploma in broadcast journalism.”
His first job as a broadcaster was at Radio Northland. He was 29.
“What I discovered very quickly is that my experiences make me better at what I do. I can identify with a whole lot of people in all different levels of life. I know what it’s like to be on the bones of your arse, and I know what it’s like to be doing well. You never really forget where you come from. I think it’s really important to have some world experience (in journalism).”
He’s been with the TV programme Sunday for 20 years, on and off.
During that time he was the Europe correspondent for TVNZ and worked on One News for a bit, then Close Up, before returning to Sunday, where he is now the senior reporter.
His forté is documentaries.
“It’s what I’ve become good at. I like the complexity, the layers, the time that you get to tell a story. I’m at that point in my career now where the harder and more challenging the story, the more I love it. Journalism is like a craft, like being a builder, or a mechanic … the more you do it, the better you get.”
One of his most complex stories, was the one on CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and the first New Zealander to be diagnosed with it.
Because CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, Crysell (and viewers) never got to meet the subject, Justin Jennings, so he needed to build a story around who Justin was and where he came from. He then had to inform viewers about the disease that still isn’t accepted by a lot of the major sporting bodies.
Like rugby. And football.
He mentions the English soccer team from 1966 that won the FIFA World Cup. Five of them developed dementia, with four of them dying from it by 2020.
He compares the fight to recognise CTE as a sporting injury to the tobacco campaign.
“For years these doctors have been saying this is bad, this is what’s happening, and at some stage I think the penny will drop.
“It’s hard to know the scale of the problem because a lot of these people suffer in silence.”
The story made such an impact on Mark, he is donating his brain to New Zealand’s Brain Bank after he dies.
Mark likes to come up with his own story ideas, then pitches them to his boss Jane Skinner.
“I’ve always been good at story-telling and I think that’s a lot of what journalism is about. Getting the story is one thing … telling it is another.”
His first TV award was for an amusing piece he did on the installation of New Plymouth’s Wind Wand for backch@t. It was the first time such an award went to a non-current affairs programme.
Over the years he’s collected many more awards, including Best Current Affairs Reporter and Television reporter of the Year at the Qantas Media Awards, Best Daily Current Affairs Reporter at 2011’s AFTA Awards and Best Current Affairs Reporter at the NZ TV Awards in 2012. In 2021, he won Broadcast Reporter of The Year at the Voyager Media Awards.
The story Mark did on New Plymouth’s old Ivon Watkins Dow site called ‘Paritutu’s Toxic Legacy’ was Sunday’s highest rating story of 2022. The recent story on building plastic is so far Sunday’s highest rating show of 2023.
“Journalism connects you with such a wide range of people,” he enthuses. “You meet the best, the worst, the powerful and some real scumbags.”
Not high on most people’s ‘must-do’ destinations, Mark was always keen to go to North Korea.
“I just like places that not everybody goes to.”
It took “about two years” to get the necessary permission.
“It was quite a heightened time but once you’re in there (North Korea) it’s like being in a Tupperware container. They put the lid on, you can’t really communicate very easily outside, there’s no internet, and you’re followed and watched everywhere — you have to accept that. You’re locked into your hotels at night — you can’t go anywhere on your own.”
The team was granted access to parts of the country no foreigner had ever been to before.
He recalls hopping on the train from China … “things became awfully real at that stage.”
Minders were all over him and his team from the moment they arrived. This included checking to make sure he wasn’t using his cell phone, checking his messages, checking photos and film footage that was taken.
“But it was amazing, absolutely fascinating — and I never have to go back again.”
He loves Africa and recommends it as a destination to friends and co-workers.
“You’ll never regret it and it just gets into your blood. Get to Zanzibar … it’s still the most extraordinary place, incredible architecture, old stone, the smell of spices, cloves, beautiful beaches, great people, incredible food. Everybody should go to Africa.
“I like to travel to places where you’ve got to work a bit to get there. That was one of the great things about North Korea. The world is quite small now with globalisation, the same stores and brands everywhere, but not in North Korea,” he laughs. “It’s like going to the moon.”
Another favourite destination is Southeast Asia where he fantasises about working in a big Asian city.
“There’s a place in Cambodia called Kep — that’s an incredible place and not many tourists go there. It’s got a lot of old modernist villas that have been overgrown by the jungle — that’s a cool place, great food, lots to see.
“Go to Europe when you’re 80, on a bus. I like developing countries … they’re slightly more interesting.”
As for must-do experiences, “I just reckon it’s good to be brave and have a crack at things. I was reasonably timid growing up and that was one thing travelling gave me, was some confidence. If you want to do something, have a go … don’t make excuses not to do it. Find reasons to do it. And if you make mistakes, that’s part of it, that’s part of the journey.”
These days Mark lives in Auckland, but he still calls New Plymouth home.
His daughter Edie (9) also has a strong affinity for the region and feels very connected to the mountain and always tells people she’s from here.
New Plymouth’s Back Beach is his tūrangawaewae*, he says. “Hard out, always will be.”
It’s usually Mark Crysell’s first stop when he returns ‘home’.
His family has installed a seat there in honour of his mum, Pat, who was a school dental nurse for 40 years.
“My Dad was a very intelligent man, self-taught (like a lot of people his generation) and I don’t know if I’m that smart. He started out as a watchmaker but he was a very good sales rep, first in insurance and then working for Reckitt and Colman, who sold toothpaste and Loxene shampoo.
He ended up managing Wholesale Book Distributors — he would organise the author tours and take them around all the radio stations around the country.
Both his parents died relatively young … his Dad at 55, Mark was 29 at the time; and his Mum at 65. He admits to a great sense of relief once he passed the 55 year mark himself (he’s now 62).
He loves the Taranaki sense of humour and reckons the tinder dry wit of Taranakians is indigenous to the region.
“It’s such a different place from the place I grew up in,” he reflects.
“People have much more pride in living here than when I was growing up. People face the ocean more now and it’s part of the whole community. The Coastal Walkway is absolute genius. People who come here, for WOMAD, or who just discover it, are always completely blown away by Taranaki.”
His nickname is Lefty. It has nothing to do with any political leanings, or “because I can’t do anything right,” he grins. The moniker actually mocks his inability to surf on left-handed breaks.
“I had to learn pretty quickly at places like Kumara Patch, Graveyards and Rocky Point.”
Married twice, firstly in 1994 in Germany to Barbara Schmelzer, then in 2011 to current wife
Briar McCormack. Briar used to be the head of Current Affairs in TVNZ, and also the Executive Producer of Sunday, and Fair Go. She now works for ANZ.
“Everyone who leaves TVNZ looks younger and healthier,” he laughs.
He never thought he’d be a Dad.
“I’m so unbelievably grateful. You just don’t realise what is untapped inside you until you have your own child. Being an older dad I’m always doing the maths but so stoked I finally got there.”
He spent six months as a stay-at-home Dad to make the most of the experience.
“There’s a sense of wonderment and excitement and disbelief that this little child is yours.
“It was actually really hard coming back to work because I felt like I’d lost a limb or something.”
His daughter Edie is named after Andy Warhol’s and Bob Dylan’s muse, Edie Sedgewick – “I always liked the name.” Now 9, Mark is fascinated at how she uses voice activation all the time.
“Her generation probably won’t even have to type — they’ll just speak into their computers and it’ll spit it all out.”
She reminds Mark of his Mum.
“She’s very good with people and she’s kind of quirky.”
His favourite saying is ‘Drink it while it’s Fizzy’. To him that encapsulates life. It was at his mum’s funeral that Mark first heard it, courtesy of good mate Onions (Grant Everest).
“I’ve used it ever since to the point where a well-known artist friend of mine has made an artwork using the phrase.
“I heard another one the other day that I really like ‘All storms run out of rain’.”
Remember that this winter.
Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.